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Ice Station Zebra

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Ice Station Zebra
Theatrical release poster by Howard Terpning
Directed byJohn Sturges
Screenplay byDouglas Heyes
Harry Julian Fink
W. R. Burnett
Based onIce Station Zebra
1963 novel
by Alistair MacLean
Produced byJames C. Pratt
Martin Ransohoff
John Calley
StarringRock Hudson
Ernest Borgnine
Patrick McGoohan
Jim Brown
CinematographyDaniel L. Fapp
Edited byFerris Webster
Music byMichel Legrand
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • October 23, 1968 (1968-10-23)
Running time
149 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$8–10 million[2][3][4]
Box office$4.6 million (United States and Canada)[2][1]

Ice Station Zebra is a 1968 American espionage thriller film directed by John Sturges and starring Rock Hudson, Patrick McGoohan, Ernest Borgnine, and Jim Brown. The screenplay is by Douglas Heyes, Harry Julian Fink, and W. R. Burnett, loosely based on Alistair MacLean's 1963 novel. Both have parallels to real-life events that took place in 1959.[clarification needed] The film concerns a US nuclear submarine that must rush to the North Pole to rescue the members of the Ice Station Zebra.

The film was photographed in Super Panavision 70 and presented in 70 mm Cinerama in premiere engagements. The original music score is by Michel Legrand. Ice Station Zebra was released on October 23, 1968, to mixed reviews, and it was not a box office success, earning only $4.6 million over its $8–10 million budget.



A satellite re-enters the atmosphere and ejects a capsule, which parachutes to Arctic ice, approximately 320 mi (510 km) northwest of Station Nord, Greenland in the Arctic Ocean ice pack. A person approaches, guided by a homing beacon, while a second person secretly watches from nearby.

Commander James Ferraday, captain of the American nuclear attack submarine USS Tigerfish stationed at Holy Loch, Scotland, is ordered by Admiral Garvey to rescue the personnel of a British scientific weather station moving with the ice pack named Drift Ice Station Zebra. This, however, is cover for the real mission.

British intelligence agent "Mr. Jones" and a U.S. Marine platoon join the Tigerfish while in dock. After setting sail, a Kaman SH-2 Seasprite helicopter delivers Captain Anders, a strict officer who takes command of the Marines, and Boris Vaslov, a Russian defector and spy, who Jones trusts. The submarine sails beneath the thick Arctic pack ice but is unable to break through with its conning tower. Ferraday orders a torpedo launch to break a hole in the surface. When the inner torpedo hatch is opened, seawater rushes in flooding the compartment causing the submarine to nose dive. The boat is only saved shortly before reaching crush depth by pumping air into the flooded area. After an investigation, Ferraday discovers that the torpedo tube was sabotaged. Ferraday suspects Vaslov, while Jones suspects Anders.

The Tigerfish rises and breaks through thin ice to the surface. Ferraday, Vaslov, Jones, and the Marine platoon set out for the weather station in a blizzard. On arrival, they find the base almost burned to the ground and the scientists nearly dead from hypothermia. Jones and Vaslov start questioning the survivors about what happened.

Jones reveals to Ferraday that he's looking for an advanced experimental British camera which used an enhanced film developed by the Americans. The Soviets stole the technology and sent it into orbit to photograph locations of American missile silos. The satellite also recorded all the Soviet missile sites. After a malfunction, it crashed near Ice Station Zebra in the Arctic. When Soviet and British agents arrived to recover the film capsule, the scientists were caught in the crossfire. Ferraday sets his crew to search for the capsule. Jones finds another tracking device but is knocked out by Vaslov, a Soviet double-agent and the saboteur. Anders confronts Vaslov and the two men fight before the dazed Jones shoots and kills the American captain.

Tigerfish detects approaching Soviet aircraft. Ferraday lets Vaslov use the tracker to locate the ice-buried capsule. A large force of Soviet paratroopers arrive and demand the film. After Ferraday hands over the empty container, a brief firefight occurs when the deception is discovered. In the confusion, Vaslov tries to take the film but is wounded by Jones. Ferraday orders him to give the film to the Soviets. The canister is sent aloft by weather balloon for recovery by aircraft. Moments before it is taken, Ferraday activates his own detonator, destroying the film and denying either side the locations of the other's missile silos. The Soviet colonel concedes that both his and Ferraday's missions are effectively accomplished so leaves.

Tigerfish completes the rescue of the civilians. A teletype machine reports the news that the "humanitarian mission" has been an example of better cooperation between the West and the Soviet Union.







The film rights to the 1963 Alistair McLean novel were acquired the following year by producer Martin Ransohoff, who hoped to capitalize on the success of 1961's blockbuster adaptation of a 1957 McLean novel into The Guns of Navarone,[5] Hollywood's #2 grossing picture that year. He expected the film to cost around $5 million.[6] Ransohoff's company, Filmways, had a deal with MGM to provide financing.[7]

Paddy Chayefsky, who had just written The Americanization of Emily for Ransohoff, was hired to write the script.

Navarone stars Gregory Peck and David Niven were initially attached to the film, with Peck as the submarine commander and Niven as the British spy, plus Edmond O'Brien and George Segal in the other key roles. John Sturges was borrowed from The Mirisch Company to direct.[8] Filming was set to begin in April 1965, but scheduling conflicts and United States Department of Defense objections over Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay because they felt it showed "an unfair distortion of military life" that would "damage the reputation of the Navy and its personnel"[9] delayed the start. A new script was commissioned.

In January 1967 MGM announced the film would be one of 13 movies it would make during the next year.[10]



Due to scheduling conflicts, the original cast was no longer available when filming began in the spring of 1967.[11] Rock Hudson had replaced Gregory Peck by February.[12] After making four flop comedies in a row, Hudson had been keen to change his image; he had just made Seconds and Tobruk, and Ice Station Zebra was an attempt to continue this.[13] According to his publicist, Hudson personally lobbied for the starring role in this film which "revitalized" his career.[14] In June 1967, Laurence Harvey and Patrick McGoohan joined the cast as the Russian agent and British agent, respectively.[15] In July, Ernest Borgnine replaced Harvey.[16] Other key roles were played by Jim Brown and Tony Bill, who signed a five-picture contract with Ransohoff,.[17]

There were no women in the cast. "It was the way Maclean wrote it," said Hudson.[18]



Filming began in June 1967 using Metrocolor film stock.[19] The film was budgeted at $8 million.[3] Principal photography lasted 19 weeks, ending in October 1967.[12] By the time it was finished the cost had risen to $10 million.[20]

Ice Station Zebra was photographed in Super Panavision 70 by Daniel L. Fapp. The fictional nuclear-powered submarine Tigerfish (SSN-509) was portrayed in the movie by the diesel-electric Guppy IIA class sub USS Ronquil (SS-396) when seen on the surface. For submerging and surfacing scenes, the diesel-electric Guppy IA USS Blackfin (SS-322) was used, near Pearl Harbor. The underwater scenes used a model of a Skate-class nuclear submarine. George Davis, head of the art department at MGM, spent two years researching interior designs for the submarine.[3]

Second unit cameraman John M. Stephens developed an innovative underwater camera system that successfully filmed the first continuous dive of a submarine, which became the subject of a documentary featurette, The Man Who Makes a Difference.[21]

During filming, Patrick McGoohan had to be rescued from a flooded chamber by a diver who freed his trapped foot, saving his life.[22] As he was also making his television series The Prisoner during principal photography on Ice Station Zebra, McGoohan had the episode "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling" re-written to have the mind of his character transferred into the body of another character.[23]



Ice Station Zebra was released in some theaters in the Cinerama format.[19] However, it was not popular with audiences, losing substantial money.[24] It premiered at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles on October 23, 1968, where Rock Hudson was heckled at the premiere.[25] The film opened to the general public the following day.[1] The film earned theatrical rentals of $4.6 million domestically.[26]

The escalating production costs of this film, along with the poorly-received The Shoes of the Fisherman at the same time, led to the transfer of MGM President Robert O'Brien to chairman of the board, though he resigned that position in early 1969, after both films were released and failed to recoup their costs.[20]



On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 47% rating based on 15 reviews with an average rating of 5.30/10.[27] On Metacritic it has a weighted average score of 49% based on reviews from 9 critics, indicating "mixed or average" reviews.[28]

On December 21, 1968, Renata Adler reviewed the film for The New York Times: "a fairly tight, exciting, Saturday night adventure story that suddenly goes all muddy in its crises... It doesn't make much difference, though... The special effects, of deep water, submarine and ice, are convincing enough—a special Super Panavision, Metrocolor, Cinerama claustrophobia... (The cast) are all stock types, but the absolute end of the movie—when the press version of what happened at a Russian-American polar confrontation goes out to the world—has a solid, non-stock irony that makes this another good, man's action movie, (there are no women in it) to eat popcorn by."[29]

In the March 1969 issue of Harper's Magazine, Robert Kotlowitz wrote: "... a huge production, one of those massive jobs that swallow us alive... For action it has crash dives, paratroopers, Russian spies, off-course satellites, and a troop of Marines, the average age of whom seems to be fourteen. It also has Rock Hudson...Patrick McGoohan...Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, and enough others to field maybe three football teams. And best of all there is also some nice suspense and pacing for at least two-thirds of the movie's three-hour length. It comes apart a bit only when the mystery starts to unravel; but that is the nature of mysteries..." Kotlowitz's review suggests that seeing the film in theaters equipped for Super Panavision 70 played a significant role in a viewer's experience:

What really got me was the kind of details that the immense, curving Cinerama screen was able to offer... Every single glistening drop of bow spray can be seen as it comes pouring over the submarine's surface, caught by a camera strapped to the conning tower. There are beautiful abstract patterns made by the sub as it cuts its way through the North Sea, all the gleaming, meticulous, finely wrought, intricate machinery inside the sub, and huge chunks of mountainous ice hanging down from the roof of the ice cap like molars. Nothing could distract me from that screen, not even several minutes of confused story-telling at the end of the film... Buy some popcorn and see the movie.[30]

At the time of the film's release Variety's brief review praised it, highlighting the performances: "Film’s biggest acting asset is McGoohan, who gives his scenes that elusive ‘star’ magnetism. He is a most accomplished actor with a three-dimensional presence all his own. Hudson comes across quite well as a man of muted strength. Borgnine's characterization is a nicely restrained one. Brown, isolated by script to a suspicious personality, makes the most of it."[31]

In April 1969, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times described it as "so flat and conventional that its three moments of interest are an embarrassment" and called it "a dull, stupid movie". He expressed disappointment that the special effects did not, in his opinion, live up to advance claims, comparing them unfavorably to the effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey.[32] (MGM pulled the hugely successful 2001: A Space Odyssey from Cinerama venues in order to make way for Ice Station Zebra.[33])

Writing for TCM, Lang Thompson calls the film "a nifty thriller of spies, submarines and saboteurs that captivated no less a personage than Howard Hughes, who reportedly watched it hundreds of times.[34] You certainly won't regret watching it once."[35] Thompson is referring to the fact that "In the era before VCRs, Howard Hughes would call the Las Vegas TV station he owned and order them to run a particular movie. Hughes so loved Ice Station Zebra that it aired in Las Vegas over 100 times."[36]

In the September/October 1996 issue of Film Comment, director John Carpenter contributed to the magazine's long-running Guilty Pleasures feature.[37] He included Ice Station Zebra on his list, asking "Why do I love this movie so much?"[38]



Ice Station Zebra was nominated in two categories at the 41st Academy Awards, for Best Special Visual Effects (nominees: Hal Millar and Joseph McMillan Johnson, won by 2001: A Space Odyssey) and Best Cinematography (nominee: Daniel L. Fapp, won by Romeo and Juliet).

See also



  1. ^ a b c Ice Station Zebra at the AFI Catalog of Feature Films
  2. ^ a b Lovell, Glenn (2008). Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges. University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 264–269.
  3. ^ a b c Thomas, K. (July 17, 1967). "North pole finds a place in the sun for 'Ice Station'". Los Angeles Times. p. C1. ProQuest 155701551.
  4. ^ Welles, Chris (August 3, 1969). "Bo Polk and B School Moviemaking". Los Angeles Times. p. 16.
  5. ^ Scheuer, P. K. (April 10, 1964). "'Tom jones' steals poll of U.S. critics". Los Angeles Times. ProQuest 168563381.
  6. ^ "Filmways expects sharp rise in fiscal '64 profit". Wall Street Journal. April 22, 1964. ProQuest 132971479.
  7. ^ "Message Merchant on the Run". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2021-06-05. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  8. ^ Martin, B (August 6, 1965). "Movie Call Sheet". Los Angeles Times. ProQuest 155269498.
  9. ^ Suid, Lawrence H. (2002). Guts and Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. p. 402. ISBN 0-8131-9018-5. Archived from the original on 2021-06-05. Retrieved 2017-02-05.
  10. ^ "MGM Plans 14 Films on 1967 Budget". Los Angeles Times. 25 January 1967. p. d10.
  11. ^ Martin, B (June 20, 1967). "McLaglen to direct 'mace'". Los Angeles Times. ProQuest 155674517.
  12. ^ a b Martin, Betty (6 February 1967). "Hudson Joins 'Ice Station'". Los Angeles Times. p. d25.
  13. ^ Thomas, Kevin (21 September 1967). "A Change of Pace for Rock Hudson: Variety of Roles for Rock Hudson". Los Angeles Times. p. e1.
  14. ^ Clark, Tom (March 28, 1990). Rock Hudson Friend of Mine. Pharos Books. p. 148,149.
  15. ^ "Harvey and Hudson to Co-Star". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2021-06-05. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  16. ^ Martin, Betty (6 July 1967). "Cassavetes Leaves 'Madrid'". Los Angeles Times. p. e14.
  17. ^ Martin, Betty (28 June 1967). "Eva Renzie in 'Pink Jungle'". Los Angeles Times. p. e11.
  18. ^ Browning, Norma Lee (25 August 1967). "Dramatic Roles Lure Rock Hudson". Chicago Tribune. p. b20.
  19. ^ a b Adler, Renata; Canby, Vincent; Thompson, Howard (1968-12-21). "The Screen: 'Ice Station Zebra' at the Cinerama". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2024-05-13.
  20. ^ a b "Metro-Goldwyn Omits Dividend; O'Brien Resigns: Board Cites Possible Loss Of Up to $19 Million in The Current Fiscal Year; Bronfman Named Chairman". Wall Street Journal. 27 May 1969. p. 2.
  21. ^ The Man Who Makes The Difference (1968) on YouTube
  22. ^ "Obituary: Patrick McGoohan". The Telegraph. 15 January 2009. Archived from the original on 23 January 2020. Retrieved 20 September 2019.
  23. ^ Lois Dickert Armstrong (5 November 1967). "Actor McGoohan Sees Films, TV as Blessing and Threat". Los Angeles Times. p. D12.
  24. ^ "John Sturges - Rotten Tomatoes". www.rottentomatoes.com. Archived from the original on 2020-08-28. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  25. ^ Cutler, Jacqueline (December 8, 2018). "Rock Hudson: A life of running, from himself". New York Daily News. The New York Daily News. Retrieved 19 January 2023.
  26. ^ "Ice Station Zebra". catalog.afi.com. Archived from the original on 2020-12-04. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  27. ^ "Ice Station Zebra". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved March 1, 2024.
  28. ^ "Ice Station Zebra". Metacritic. Retrieved March 1, 2024.
  29. ^ Adler, Renata; Canby, Vincent; Thompson, Howard (1968-12-21). "The Screen: 'Ice Station Zebra' at the Cinerama". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 2019-05-06. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  30. ^ "Harper's magazine : Alden, Henry Mills, 1836–1919 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming". Internet Archive. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  31. ^ "Ice Station Zebra". Variety. 1968-01-01. Archived from the original on 2020-12-01. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  32. ^ Ebert, Roger (April 21, 1969). "Ice Station Zebra". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on October 1, 2015. Retrieved September 30, 2015.
  33. ^ "Ice Station Zebra (1968)". Turner Classic Movies. Archived from the original on 2017-06-20. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  34. ^ Chun, Rene. "Howard Hughes had an epic screening room installed in his Vegas hotel suite. We've recreated it". Wired. Retrieved 26 August 2022.
  35. ^ "Ice Station Zebra". Turner Classic Movies. Archived from the original on 2017-03-17. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  36. ^ "Ice Station Zebra (1968)". Turner Classic Movies. Archived from the original on 2017-06-20. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  37. ^ "The guilty pleasures of great directors". News. 13 July 2016. Archived from the original on 2020-08-15. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  38. ^ "John Carpenter Interview". www.oocities.org. Archived from the original on 2020-10-23. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  • Suid, Lawrence H. (1996). Sailing the Silver Screen: Hollywood and the U.S. Navy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-787-2.